I have avoided falling under Leonardo’s spell until now. There was something I didn’t like in his relentlessness, his heartless dissections, his fascination with weaponry and destruction. And all that backwards writing, even though I’m left handed myself and once came across whole pages of backward printing I’d done before finding out it wasn’t allowed. How determined Leonardo must have been. Being self-taught helped, but only at the beginning.
Oddly it was the notebooks that lured me in, in a marvellous exhibition at the British Library which gave only a taste of this sprawling mass of material–7000 dense pages surviving, it is said–which he had hopes of organising into treatises and never did, as I’ve come wishfully to think, because they’re all pieces of an ever-expanding universe that one does a kind of violence to call even a temporary halt to.
The British Library exhibition interleaved two of the more than twenty surviving codices, 80 pages in total, which bristled with loose ends and overlapping, in spite of a clear overall conception.
The major part came from the Library’s Codex Arundel, published in facsimile in 1998, which put all the loose sheets, released from their misleading 16th century binding in the early 1990s, put them semi-miraculously in chronological order, using up-to-date knowledge of the evolution of Leonardo’s handwriting and detailed attention to what projects belonged to what periods of his life. There is of course no such thing as a single chronology. Sheets are added to, annotated, rearranged as Leonardo returns to old subjects or looks over old notes. But there is some sense in trying to order his thoughts even when he didn’t, though what appealed to me most was the strong sense that he was always thinking of more than one thing at once and seeing unheard-of connections between, say, the facial expressions of horses, lions and men in extreme states of rage or fear.
All the notebooks still loom there as an unsolved puzzle or treasure house in which words and images endlessly collide and feed off one another. But they led me almost at once to someplace else, to Leonardo’s drawings, visually richer than the notebooks but just as full of the strange leaps of thought and the dazzling range of subjects, which so often melt into each other before your eyes.
There is a famous sheet of nothing but fragments that is sometimes used to show the magpie-range of Leonardo’s interests. The centre or gathering point of the sheet, if there is one, is a set of geometrical diagrams, lightly traced-in across the centre of the page. This element escapes me almost completely, except as a delicate skeleton that joins up the bits that interest me more, joins them simply as unifying pattern, not as content or meaning. Perhaps the more you understood the geometry, the more it would interfere with appreciating the other unrelated bits.
These bits consist of the profile of an older man whose nose and chin are exaggerated, and verge toward each other uncomfortably. You will come to recognise this as a favourite motif of the artist, often given grotesque emphasis, and meaning what? At his waist there springs up a delicate tree whose bare upper branches merge with the folds of the man’s toga. This little tree is the minutest sample of an atmospheric subtlety of which only this artist is capable, here thrown away on a Dali-esque joke. Measured by the scale of the tree, the man must be 200 feet high.
To his right and one register lower is another botanical study, or part of one: two stalks almost intertwined, with leaves climbing and circling the stalks. The subtle crinkling of each leaf is similar to but different from the others. You feel like lingering, undeterred by a big ink-stain that cuts across the stems near their base.
The most beautiful elements of all are tiny clouds separate from anything else, one of which may actually be a copse, another of which looks like a series of mountain ridges that Ruskin might have drawn. There are also decorative curls unfurling like petals, and serial frills like printers’ ornaments, also infused with vegetal life.
One of the faintest elements is a tiny horse and rider, rearing and pushing his shield forward like a flat saucer. Next to them a nude colossus making a tiny adjustment on an invisible surface. Both these groups are perched carefully on one of the circles ruled by a compass.
This sheet evidently works its magic on many observers. It was chosen for the title page of the catalogue of the recent exhibition of 200 Leonardo drawings from the Royal Collection. It’s only a rough impression that finely finished drawings are rarer in Leonardo’s production than in other Renaissance artists’ work. For whatever reason a number of these are plant studies full of quirky observation, yet completely untroubled and at ease. The most beautiful in red chalk on red paper use seemingly methodical hatching to produce deep shadow and a kind of atmosphere under leaves and in a magical interior space at the heart of a cluster of berries.
The simplest of all the botanical studies, a reed with burrs on one side of the page and a single bulrush on the other, are among the most astonishing for producing layers and depths within the reed-clump and for variety in the minute twists of the bulrush spikes, each a distinct existence. But the most hypnotic of all is a clump of star-of-Bethlehem with spiralling leaves looking like one of Leonardo’s drawings of whirlpools and eddies in a stream. Here different species are confused and overlapped, and a further instance is strewn in the empty space at their feet, which includes a sequence of this euphorbia’s seedpods, open, half-open, viewed from behind and after the enclosing shell has fallen off. Here red chalk deepens and clarifies the upper thicket where extra grasses thicken an already dense plot. Below, wider spacing allows the inspection of a sequence to take place.
These seed-pods splitting call up the human embryo exposed in the womb, the most compelling seed-pod of all to us, an idea on which he plays a set of variations with the uterus as an exfoliating flower, and with other stages of the process taking the same form at smaller scales, and finally an empty sphere as the most perfect vision of unfolding.
Leonardo also finds a weird beauty in the emptied sphere of the skull sliced in half or with only the enclosure of the left hemisphere of the brain removed, allowing an inside/outside comparison of the lower parts of the skull.
The bony membranes which act as braces from centre to edge are astonishingly beautiful, in part through subtle lighting—imagine this theatrical glare and shadow inside the head! Leonardo really seems a magician to have found this drama in these places, a triumph of materialism to bring out such depths in cartilage and bone. Much of the meaning hangs on what he shows and doesn’t show, on selective unveiling of mysteries which leaves other areas dark.
The famous section of a copulating couple is another selective dissection, which favours the male, leaving him his face and hair and a leading leg, only faintly present, but not stripped back to bare machinery. The curve which unites the couple consists in large part of nerves and tubes which depict an exploded theory of how the soul makes its contribution to the sperm, so it’s only partly an exaggeration to call the image a spiritual hoax.
Investigating the nature and especially the movement of water had occupied much of Leonardo’s attention throughout his career. The British Library exhibition made this a major focus, and the drawings at the Queen’s Gallery included a rich selection of water flowing, swirling, breaking its banks and finally overwhelming the world of man in an apocalyptic deluge which Leonardo depicted over and over again, both grandly and minutely. His map of the course of the River Arno with his proposal for a canal cancelling much of its existing length between Florence and the sea is one expression of this consuming interest, and the final sign of the obsession is a series of cataclysmic explosions which he also rendered in words.
There’s a sheet which shows an old bearded man contemplating a river’s flow interrupted by obstacles placed in the stream. The two images—sage and stream—are not related, yet the old man contemplating time’s passage in water’s movement is a powerful idea. The other images of worlds overwhelmed by natural catastrophe are clear but troubling. It is as if the old man imagines his own approaching end as an avalanche that buries all.